Freed American journalist leaves Iran

May 15, 2009 2:54:09 PM PDT
After four months in an Iranian prison, American journalist Roxana Saberi was savoring her first taste of freedom back in the West - beaming a confident smile Friday upon touching down in Austria's capital but keeping silent about the details of her ordeal. After thanking those who supported her during her captivity, Saberi was whisked away to the home of friends in Vienna, where she planned to spend several days recuperating and coming to terms with her experiences in Iran.

"I need some more time to think about what happened to me over the past couple of days," the 32-year-old journalist told reporters at the Vienna airport. "Nobody knows about it as well as I do and I will talk about it more in the future, I hope, but I am not prepared at this time."

Saberi, who grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, and moved to Iran six years ago, has dual citizenship. She was arrested in late January and convicted of spying for the United States in a closed-door trial that her Iranian-born father said lasted only 15 minutes.

She was freed on Monday and reunited with her parents, who had come to Iran to seek her release, after an appeals court reduced her sentence to two years suspended.

The United States had said the charges against Saberi were baseless and repeatedly demanded her release. The case against her had become an obstacle to President Barack Obama's attempts at dialogue with the top U.S. adversary in the Middle East.

Saberi, who at one point went on a hunger strike, said she was grateful for the support she had received: "Both journalists and non-journalists around the world, I've been hearing, supported me very much and it was very moving for me to hear this," she said.

Among those who strove to bring attention to her plight were students and faculty at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Saberi's alma mater.

"We are delighted that she has been released," Larry Stuelpnagel, who taught Saberi in 1999, said in an e-mail. "She showed a great deal of courage during her ordeal and we all hope to see her when she returns to the States."

Saberi's safe arrival in Austria was also greeted with joy in her home state. Gov. John Hoeven said he spoke by phone with Saberi Friday morning and was "pleased to hear she and her family are doing well."

"I expressed that all North Dakotans are happy about her release, and we look forward to welcoming her home," Hoeven said in a statement.

While her supporters rejoiced, rights groups cautioned that many incarcerated journalists face a less fortunate fate.

"The good news is short-lived - we don't want others to be forgotten," said Meredith Greene Megaw, director of communications at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Jean-Francois Julliard, head of Reporters Without Borders, hoped Saberi would share her story with the world. "I hope this affair will mobilize efforts to release ten Iranian journalists being held at this moment in Iran," he said.

Saberi did not specify how long she planned to stay in Austria, saying only: "We're going to stay here for at least a few days and then go on to the United States."

She said it was still unclear if she would also travel to France, where a film she co-scripted premiered at the Cannes Film festival on Thursday. The film's director is Saberi's partner.

At the airport, Saberi made special mention of Austria's ambassador to Iran Michael Postl, whom she described as "very helpful."

Austrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal said Postl knows the Saberi family and, due to his extensive contacts in Iran, was able to help secure her release.

Austria has had a decades-long dialogue with Iran on human rights and was also involved in the release of Iranian-American academic Haleh Esfandiari from prison in 2007.

Esfandiari, when contacted for comment, said she sympathized with Saberi's urge to withdraw for a few days. "Roxana will need to take a few days off," she said.

Saberi ended her hunger strike in prison after two weeks when her parents, visiting her in prison, asked her to stop because her health was weakening.

Saberi had worked as a freelance journalist for several organizations, including National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corp.

After her arrest, Iranian authorities initially accused her of working without press credentials, but later leveled the far more serious charge of spying. Iran released few details about the allegations that she passed intelligence to the U.S.